My Teachers Don’t Get Me: Culturally Competent Teaching in a Diverse Society

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Misunderstood by My Teachers
I spent my childhood attending a predominantly black inner city school with very little resources. All of my classmates were from the same socioeconomic background as I was. We were all poor, marginalized, black children who society had seemingly given up on. Consequently, very few of my teachers could relate to me, nor could they fully understand our cultural background. Some of their teaching practices were inadequate and their communication with students was inept, as they had not had the proper training or experience in effectively educating inner city youth and students from minoritized groups.

A Democratic Society Should Celebrate Diversity
A democratic society calls for every student voice to be heard, recognized and valued, but unfortunately we have greatly missed the mark so far in the United States. In the past few decades an educational theory known as culturally competent pedagogy has become increasingly more popular (And for good reason). If the educators in my elementary school had taken the opportunity to learn and respect our cultural background, they would have been able to more effectively serve our population. When teachers regularly integrate cultural competency into their curricular planning they transform the classroom into a more effective and equitable learning environment.            

What is Culturally Competent Teaching?
According to the National Education Association cultural competence is “having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.” In other words, cultural competence involves educators doing some introspective work and examining themselves and their own cultural identity as it relates to their views of others. As they practice this critical self-reflection teachers must be intentional about learning the cultural background of their students, especially those that have different experiences from their own. They can in turn build upon that knowledge, thereby radically transforming their classrooms into more inclusive environments. This is pertinent because often when Americans think about notions of diversity, multiculturalism and difference they automatically think about people other than themselves. That is, conversations about diversity and inclusion are only referring to those people out there, from other races, ethnicities countries or another part of town. But culturally responsive teaching calls for educators to think about themselves as they think about others. In this way, they can be more intentional about supporting those students from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Furthermore, when they are teaching those students they can do so in a way that is respectful of their culture, and affirms their values. This also entails some cultural humility, in that teachers should not have the attitude that their culture and values are more superior to that of their students. In this time of cultural, political and racial division it is invaluable that educators find strategies to promote diversity in sincere ways within their classrooms. Here are five characteristics of effective culturally competent teaching and learning outlined by Cheryl Irish and Monica Scrubb.

1. Culturally competent teaching and learning facilitates critical reflection.
2. Culturally competent teaching and learning demands respect for others.
3. Culturally competent teaching and learning involves accommodating individual learners.
4. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires the use of intercultural communication skills.
5. Culturally competent teaching and learning requires focused activities and intentionally structured environments. 

Now that we have provided some discussion of what culturally competent pedagogy is all about, we will provide some resources below so that educators can go about implementing these principles into their classrooms.

A few ideas for integrating cultural competency into your lesson planning:

1. Student’s Exploring Their Cultural Background through Writing     
America is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse and therefore making our classrooms more diverse. One way for teachers to learn about their student’s cultural background is by allowing students to do regular journal reflections that encourage them to share their background. Students may start off slow and reluctant to do this but if teachers ensure them that they are in a safe place, they will feel more and more comfortable writing and sharing, especially the more often they do it.

A sample writing prompt for a social studies or language arts class might include:
Write about a typical day at home/ in your neighborhood/ or at a family gathering. Be sure to answer the following questions in your prompt:

  • What are typical activities that go on there? 
  • What is the atmosphere like? What do you do for fun? 
  • What type of activities take place on a regular basis? 
  • What type of people are there? (I.e. Which family members? 

How many family members)? 

  • What languages are spoken?
  • What are important topics discussed at home? 
  • What are important family traditions?

With this foundational knowledge about the students, teachers can also share their own cultural background and highlight the similarities and differences with their students. Teachers can build assessments with this knowledge, including class projects that allow students to present information about their culture, essays that allow students to do more research on their culture as compared to others, video documentaries about their lives, creating cultural musical productions, a genealogy project and oral presentations.                            

2. Digital Pen Pals
Students can use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to develop relationships with students their age in other countries. They can also do a cultural exchange with students in a part of the United States wherein the culture is completely different from their own such as a Native American reservation. It is important for the teacher to outline questions and criteria for the students that lead to specific fact finding and cultural sharing when interacting with their digital pen pal. That is, teachers should be very intentional about guiding students with prompts and directives that will help them gain and share information that will lead to them learning about other cultures while effectively sharing their own. 

Other Lesson Plans
Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators
Lesson Plan: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility in Cross-Cultural Exchange
Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility in Cross-Cultural Exchange
Cultural Competence Activities for Teachers
15 Culturally-Responsive Teaching Strategies and Examples + Downloadable List
Culturally Competent Action Plan

Resources/References
Why Cultural Competence?
How to Practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
Cultural Competence
Why Focus on Cultural Competence and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?
Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Originator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Addresses ACE Teachers and Leaders
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy



10 Comments

  1. Throughout my time at NKU and in the education program I have been able to see the importance of being culturally competent In my future classroom. While reading this article, I enjoyed reading about your experiences in your classrooms and how that can affect students even today. I have been lucky enough to go to schools that I see myself within my teachers, but I never thought about how that can affect students who don’t see themselves or even similarities with their teacher. Building relationships with students is something that I think is so important for students and with that I think building relationships by adhering to their cultures and races is just as important. I really love the idea of students exploring their own cultures because it shows students that you value their culture and background.

  2. As a future educator, for one of my classes, I was asked to produce my cultural autobiography. I found it to be both challenging and rewarding. Challenging in respect of the fact I had to really dig down deep, into what I had always projected onto others. But rewarding because I found out who I really was. Taking this forward, it served as a foundation for me to grow upon, and transfer into my classroom. With a hope that I am able to break down any barriers, or perceived barriers, from the inside out. My classroom starts with me, and ends with me, and if I’m not willing to do anything, then what hope is there? It’s like when I get told I love your accent (I’m English) I wish I had an accent, to which I reply we all have accents, and it’s amazing the number of people who do not grasp that they, along with everyone else, has an accent. We all have a cultural identity.embracing other people’s, is something we need to do, if we have any hope of breaking down barriers.

  3. This was very informative! As someone who wants to teach at an in inner city school, I appreciate more resources and ways to educate myself. It is so important, as the teacher, to respect and encourage students when talking about their cultural background. The United States has so many different cultures and those should be celebrated! I look forward to taking some of the practices you mentioned into my classroom some day. Particularly I think the journal would be a fun, safe way for students to express their background and life. It would help build confidence and security within the school atmosphere. Thanks for taking the time to write this and include resources!

  4. After reading this article, I have learned the importance of having a culturally competent classroom. As a future teacher, I definitely plan to have a culturally competent classroom so that way my students will be able to have a successful educational experience, and one in which they will enjoy. I find it extremely important to get to know the students you are working with in the classroom. Each child is very different and they come from a variety of different backgrounds as well. When you get to know your students on a more personal level, you are able to do a better job at providing them what they need in order to succeed. I really like the idea of getting to know your students through private journal entries. I feel like this is a great way for students to express themselves and their everyday lives while feeling safe about what they say. I also really like the idea of having a pen pal from another country. I know when I was little, I always wanted a pen pal so that way I could learn about people from different places while also making a new friend. I believe that this could be a very fun and interesting way for students to get to learn about other cultures as well as being able to express their own culture to others.

  5. Since starting the education program at NKU, I have learned a lot about other cultures. I grew up in an area not close to here and where everyone had the same background. The first school I was at taught me so much about diversity which is what made me interested in this article. I have become much more aware of how the background and culture of my students impacted their academic and social aspects of school. This article was a nice break down of cultural competence and how it impacts students. I am thankful for NKU’s program because there is so much emphasis placed on diversity and understanding students’ personal lives which I believe will make us better teachers. 

  6. As a future teacher, I really enjoyed this article for all of the information it gave me, along with the amazing ideas given to me to make sure that I am culturally competent in my own classroom. One thing that I really love about the education program at Northern Kentucky University, is that it requires you to be in a diverse school at least once during your field experiences. Right now I am in one of the most culturally diverse schools I have ever been in and I am so glad to have been given this opportunity because of how much I am learning. I really like that the school I am in translates all of the newsletters, vocabulary words, announcements, etc into Spanish as well as English to help those students and parents who don’t speak English well. However, I think that they should translate these things into other languages as well because English and Spanish aren’t the only two languages spoken in the school. As a person who is multi-racial, with a black father and a white mother, I had to get use to people early on stereotyping me and not understanding what race I was and always assuming a was of Latin descent. Also, something that really upset me on tests was that for a long time when it came to race you were only allowed to select one race and not multiple races so I was forced to check the box labeled “other” which is really upsetting and leads to the feeling that no one really notices you unless you are one race or another, or one culture or another. I was really excited to read this article and identify different ways that I can not only be culturally competent when it comes to my future classroom, but I can also be culturally competent in my classroom that I am in now, and in my everyday life. I truly loved this article and it taught me so much, I was truly inspired and I can’t wait to put this information into action in my own classroom.

  7. I really liked this article. The schools that I have been placed at from Admissions-Now (Pro 2) have been completely different than what I grew up in. The school I grew up in had very little diversity, so going to into a school like in Pro 1 was a cultural shock. Every student needs/deserves to hear their voice heard. Throughout the whole program, we are taught that you need to build a relationship with your students. They will want to be successful knowing that you are there to support them. I think the lesson idea that Dr. Child suggested about the writing prompt Exploring Their Background is a great idea that connects social studies and writing together. A lot of school focus majority of their time on math and reading which leaves science and social studies for whenever they have time to fit it in. I think this writing prompt would be a good way to combine both of them and allow students to think about how their culture is different than someone else’s. You could even have the students share a little bit of their piece if they wanted to.

  8. So many children go unheard and it is my job as a future educator to make sure that all my students feel like they are a part of my classroom community. Incorporating different cultures through books and lessons can allow students to know that they belong and matter. Personally, I love the idea of students exploring their cultural background because it would allow me to connect with them. Without understanding my students, I will not be able to reach them when it comes to teaching content material to them.

  9. This article was a great read and resource for myself as a future teacher. I grew up in a small town, attending predominately white private schools, and all of my teachers reflected that same image. I always felt understood by my teachers because they had the same experiences as I did. However, over the past few semesters in my classroom placements I’ve noticed that I’ve had difficulties finding ways to be a culturally competent educator. This article offers a couple great ideas. I specifically love the idea of the digital pen pals, considering how relevant technology and social media are and have been.

  10. As a future educator, I was never exposed to the aspect of being in diverse placements and amongst children from all over the world. I grew up in a rural town in Indiana where everyone knew everyone and with a graduating class of 100. I felt like just walking on campus at Northern, I was extremely curious and obviously to all the different diverse background groups. The article states teachers must be intentional about learning the cultural background of their students, especially those that have different experiences from their own. As Dr. Childs states in class we are like a salad bowl rather than the melting pot of America. We can become acquainted and willing to learn more about the cultures that surround us.

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